10 Quick Facts on... The Battle of the Atlantic

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  1. The Battle of the Atlantic began west of Ireland on September 3, 1939, with the sinking of the SS Athenia by a German submarine. The Montréal-bound passenger ship had 1,400 passengers and crew members on board; 118 were killed (including four Canadians).
  2. German submarines (known as U-boats) were the main threat to the merchant marine and the Allied navies. U-boats were often away from their home port for three months or longer, and they carried torpedoes and also laid mines. Their impact on shipping was devastating. In June 1941 alone, more than 500,000 tons of cargo was lost to U-boats.
  3. The first trans-Atlantic convoy of the war sailed from Halifax to the United Kingdom on September 16, 1939, escorted by British cruisers and two Canadian destroyers, HMCS St. Laurent and HMCS Saguenay.
  4. A typical convoy of 40 ships might have been 10 columns wide with four ships in each column. It would have been headed by a flagship carrying the convoy commodore and, ideally, escorted by warships patrolling its outer flanks. Ammunition ships and tankers, with their highly volatile fuel, were on the inside.
  5. While the convoy routes of the North Atlantic and the Murmansk Run to northern Russia lost the most ships and crews, there were no safe havens anywhere at sea for merchant navies, whether in the coastal waters of North America, the North or South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean or the Pacific.
  6. The Royal Canadian Navy began the war with 13 vessels and 3,500 sailors, and ended it as the third largest Allied navy with 373 ships and more than 110,000 sailors (all volunteers), which included the 6,500 women serving in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services. Aircraft from Royal Canadian Air Force Eastern Air Command, Royal Canadian Air Force crews in Royal Air Force Coastal Command and ships from the Royal Canadian Navy helped sink 50 U-boats.
  7. The Victoria Cross was posthumously awarded to Flight Lieutenant David Hornell, who came across a surfaced U-boat north of the Shetland Islands in June 1944. Although his aircraft was burning and shaking violently after being hit by anti-aircraft fire, Hornell managed to destroy the enemy submarine and land his damaged aircraft on the water. The plane soon sank, but all eight crew members managed to cling to one dinghy until they were rescued 21 hours later. Two crew members, including David Hornell, died of exposure.
  8. The merchant marine suffered tremendous losses in ships and crews. By the end of the war, as many as 72 Canadian merchant ships would be lost to enemy action—torpedoed, bombed, mined or shelled. Storms at sea, operational accidents and structural shortcomings also took their toll. The Merchant Navy Book of Remembrance lists the names of the approximately 1,600 Canadian merchant mariners who died at sea during the war, including eight women.
  9. Some 2,000 sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy were killed during the war, the vast majority of them in the Battle of the Atlantic zone. Another 752 aircrew members of the Royal Canadian Air Force also died in this theatre of operations.
  10. The Battle of the Atlantic lasted the duration of the Second World War in Europe, which officially ended on May 8, 1945 (known as V-E Day).
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